05/04/2012 04:06 EDT | Updated 07/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian Environmentalists Don't Have Time to Be Polite


There's an old joke that goes: How do you get 20 Canadians out of a swimming pool? You shout, "Hey you Canadians, get out of the swimming pool."

We're generally an obedient lot, except while on skates, so what gives with the plan of a group of Canadians to block Warren Buffett's coal trains near Vancouver this Saturday?

Most of us watched the Al Gore movie on climate change, told pollsters we were concerned about it, and then went back to business as usual.

It's not that we stopped believing in the fact of it -- although there are a handful of reality-challenged columnists who still embarrass themselves on this front -- but rather that we haven't created the structures that build our emotional investment in it.

As KC Golden says, each of us participates in an "ecosystem of denial" where we get confirmation of our own failure to change from the fact that those around us are doing the same -- it becomes a vicious cycle. We therefore bury the reality of climate change to some distant part of our brain where it festers, giving us anxiety similar to a person who knows she has a life- threatening ailment, but refuses to go to the doctor.

Part of this vicious cycle is people thinking, 'if climate change was so serious, then those in the know would be lighting their hair on fire, and they're not, so it can't be.'

How many climate scientists have we heard couching their message in calm, measured tones, so as to appear credible? How many environmentalists have we heard talking only about light bulbs, so as to appear reasonable?

This is why it's such a big deal that Marc Jaccard will be standing in front of the coal trains too. He's a Simon Fraser University professor used to walking in the hallways of power, consulting to governments and industry alike.

In his words, he feels "absolutely sick" about taking this kind of action, but says, "I am in a world now where there isn't any place for sane analysis." Note the use of words relating to sickness and sanity: a microcosm for the psychology of our society as a whole.

It is these kinds of actions that begin to break down our ecosystem of denial and instead create a "culture of responsibility" where we are shown the seriousness of our shared predicament through the seemingly dramatic actions of people around us, including those like Jaccard.

We have already been treated to a chorus of calling those who want clean energy instead of fossil fuels "radical," by the oil ideologues in Ottawa, and I expect we'll hear much more of that. The evidence, though, clearly shows that those who promote coal and oil are in fact undermining the necessary conditions for prosperous human life on this planet, quite possibly the most radical and irresponsible act ever.

Those on the train tracks and those standing up for alternatives to the tar sands -- given what we now know, this is what's "responsible" in today's world.